Book review and giveaway: Degrees of Courage

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Degrees of Courage

Degrees of Courage

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
Degrees of Courage
Shari Vester
Publisher: Mill City Press
Pub. Date: June 19, 2012
Historical fictionSource: Received
from the author through
Historical Fiction virtual book tour


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This book counted for the following 2013 Reading Challenge:



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A little background is needed here: I had the privilege to spend a week in Hungary in 1988, just before the fall of the Communist regime there. I was totally fascinated by the hospitality of these people, especially by the poor families in remote villages who really did not have much, but shared everything, plus gave you a gift because you were visiting them!
So when I was contacted for that tour, no hesitation.
I had a bit of a shock though, when I saw the size of Degrees of Courage, and how tiny the print was, but no fear was needed: I was swept up right away in the story and devoured the whole 574 pages very quickly.


This is the story of three generations of women, the grand-mother Angela, the mother Ilonka, and Sarika/Sari/Shari, the author of the book herself, as she fled from Hungary to the US in 1956, like so many Hungarians.
It opens in 1900, and the year leading to WWI. All Angela’s brothers end up in the war. There are great historical details on the background of the war, but also on the Red and then the White Terror periods, after WWI. As you know, Hungary was very badly treated at the Peace Treaty of Trianon, and lost 72% of its former territory. You can imagine all the economic consequences for the country. This issue is extremely well explained, at length.

Only in 1925 does the economy seem to get slightly better, and the Western world starts another kind of invasion, with jazz, cars, fashion, and cigarettes! But the Depression starts looming shortly after…

And then comes WWII…, where things will get from bad to worse, and worse, and worse when you think things have reached the extreme, and when you think war is over. Hungary fund itself trapped, and though they wanted neutrality, they ended up having an Alliance with Germany, which allowed them to reconquer some lost territories for a while.
I found the description of Hungary’s predicament during WWII was really excellent, as it is sometimes misunderstood by Western countries. Trapped between Russia and Germany, with no help at all from other countries, what could it do?
The daily life descriptions were terrific as well.
As Hungary refused to cooperate more with Germany, it ended up being itself invaded by then, in March 1944, with lots of bombings, resulting in many deaths, destructions, and a great poverty and shortage of food and everything.
Then the Russians arrived…, supposedly as liberators…
Once again, the international armistice did nothing for Hungary: on the contrary, it aimed at punishing it for its position during the war.
And another nightmare started for Hungarians, with the communists slowly preparing lots of changes in the country for a total take over.

In the general euphoria created by false promises for a new and more just Hungary, no one seemed to notice the subtle changes already taking place.

Lots of civilians eventually got sent to Siberia labor camps, as slave workers. Secret files were kept by the communist party on everyone. They began to train a well-indoctrinated Marxist elite to be ready to take over. Factories got nationalized, and the clergy eliminated, and persecutions of all kinds.
I have heard lots of stories about that, by victims themselves, and the author recreated perfectly all the atmosphere of fear, terror actually, and distrust, and deceit needed to survive. For instance Sari fakes to be interested in Communism, goes to some summer indoctrination camps, and signs up to help organize meetings at school, because she realizes this is the only way she will be accepted at the university, her big goal in life. Her excellent grades won’t do if she does not show any active interest in communist doctrines.

Hungarians have to wait until 1956 until chances come their way to start revolting. This period also was superbly described, with the hope, but all the revenge and added persecutions and summary executions.
When Sari and her boyfriend realize things are actually getting worse, they decide to flee the country , in 1956, first to Austria, then to the US.

It amazes me how people who went through so much do not end up bitter, but are still full of optimism and courage. This shows in Sari’s life in the US.
But back home, working conditions are as bad as before the Revolution.  So many things had been destroyed, it was a big hindrance to economic development. Only in 1968 was Sari able to come back and visit Hungary.

And when I visited the country myself in 1988, I found a country still very poor, with old cars, with secret police at every corner, actually not so secret with her greyish clothes. It was actually quite a shock crossing from Austria to Hungary: suddenly, the world became grey, sad, gloomy, apart from the beautiful hand stitched traditional clothes, full of vibrant colors.

The communist regime fell in 1990, Hungary recovered finally, but dark powers are still looming, which breaks my heart.

To sum up, Degrees of Courage is a fascinating book on what two wars did to a whole people, because surrounding powers just looked to their own interests and ignored their situation. And this is reflected in the everyday life on Angela’s family, on what they had to go through, and what it did to their characters. It is also a lesson of courage, hope, and fight for life.

Because the author had to fill in with some details she did not know, she calls her book historical fiction, but most of it is actually history. So if you need a refresher on European history in the 20th century, please read this book. You will definitely discover a lot not included in American text books on WWI and WWII.

Just a few little things that bothered me:

  • I found some details really unnecessary to the novel and the plot, or even the background, for instance the whole passage pp.53-54 on hygiene in doctors helping to give birth. It sounded to me as the author absolutely wanted to insert in her novel all her background research, which is definitely vast.
  • Also, a few words had been corrected with white out; it looked weird to me, worse than a typo.  Actually this is the first time I see this!  I prefer when the author inserts a small paper listing the edits, this would look more professional.
  • I found really odd page 160 that Lensie, Hungarian, did not know that Buda and Pest were originally 2 separate cities. Doesn’t every Hungarian person knows that?


The book follows the story of three generation of women from 1900 through 1970, seven decades of wars and hardship. At the turn of the century, an era of strict moral codes, Angela falls in love with a priest who abandons her and her unborn child. She overcomes rejection and misfortunes, including losing her right hand, and brings up her daughter, exuberant, stubborn Ilonka. In spite of the stigma of her illegitimate birth, the girl finds happiness in love and marriage, raising five children, among them Sarika, independent and high-spirited, much like herself.  With the outbreak of WWII, however, their lives change drastically, followed by equally hard times as the country falls under Soviet-style dictatorship. When an attempt to free the country in 1956 fails and people start to flee retributions, Sarika and her brothers join the exodus to the West.  With her family torn apart Ilonka never recovers her strength.
Years of fear and political pressures hasten her descend into depression, and when she loses her husband too, she finally gives up. Alone and completely on her own, Sarika finds her way to America, and begins a new life full of opportunities and most importantly, free of fear. [provided by HFVBT]

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Shari VesterAs a young woman, author Shari Vester fled her native Hungary in 1956 after the defeat of a patriotic uprising against the country’s Soviet-dictated regime. She was granted asylum in the United States to begin a new life.  After a year living in New York she moved to Los Angeles, married, and worked as an insurance account manager. Recently retired, she and her husband relocated in the Palm Spring area, where she finally found time to write. Her debut novel, Degrees of Courage, is a historical fiction drawn on her family history. It paints a sharp contrast between life as we know it in America, versus a time and place where today’s “Let it be” mentality was simply impossible.

For more information please visit Shari’s website.
You can also follow her on Twitter.


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* If you have problems entering the giveaway for this book, please send me an email before midnight on 1/29 at ehc16e {at] yahoo [dot) com. Include in it:

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5 thoughts on “Book review and giveaway: Degrees of Courage

  1. Pingback: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2013 | Words And Peace

  2. I have never visited Hungary but have read novels set during the World War 2 period which I find profound, memorable and meaningful. One was I Kiss Your hands Many times was unforgettable. Unfortunately Hungary is one of the many Anti-semitic countries in Europe.


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